Column on Natural Rights

Let’s Talk about Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When
various skeptics question the soundness of the American political
system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature.  After all,
the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who
thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a
few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human
beings have certain rights.  This is what is meant by holding that there
are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of
government.

This
is the idea that is rejected today by one of President Obama’s top
advisers and the man in charge of the federal government’s regulatory
operations.  Cass Sunstein, who is now a professor of law at Harvard but
is on leave to work with the administration, rejects any notion of
rights not fashioned by government.  And one reason for this may well
be, although I am not certain about it, that Professor Sunstein does not
agree that human nature exists.  

Certainly
many prominent legal and political theorists share this skepticism.  I
recently read one  of them who argued that because in some cultures
there is no reference to human nature anywhere, let alone in the law,
the idea of human nature cannot be right.  As if consensus determined
whether human nature exists; as if it were impossible that some folks
could be entirely ignorant of what human nature is, so much so that they
might even deny its existence.

When
the idea emerged in philosophy that things have a nature–e.g.,
starting with Socrates and his pupil Plato–it was thought that the
nature of something resembled geometrical objects by being perfect and
timeless.  So if there is a human nature, it must be something perfect
and a-temporal.  But because none of us is going to live to eternity,
none of us can establish anything as timelessly true.  If human nature
has to be something like that, then skepticism about it would be
warranted.  

But
human nature–and, indeed, the nature of anything else–need not be
timeless. What makes us all human, our human nature, can be the most up
to date, well-informed specification of attributes, capacities, or
properties so far.  Anything else would be unreasonable to ask for
since, as I already said, none of us is going to be here till the end of
time and can thus establish that what we understand as human nature
will not need some modification or adjustment.  The principles the
American founders rested on human nature were understood as capable of
being updated, which is why the U. S. Constitution has provisions for
its amendment.  This, however, does not justify fundamental doubt or
skepticism about either human nature or the principles based on it, such
as our natural rights.

So
at least one source of skepticism about our basic rights, rights that
do not depend upon government’s grating them (even if their protection
is government’s main job), can be set aside.  But there is more.  We are
all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize
our knowledge of the world.  We know, for example, that there are
fruits–a class of some kind of beings–and games–another class–and
subatomic particles–yet another class–and so on and so forth.  These
classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things
being classified but constitute their common features, ones without
which they wouldn’t be what they are.  Across the world, for example,
apples and dogs and chicken and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all
recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when
some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, even when there
are some oddities involved.

So
there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us–we
have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature.  And this puts a
limit on what governments may do, including do to us.  They need to
secure our rights and as they do so they must also respect them.

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